August 03, 2007 (the date of publication in Russian)

Yegor Kholmogorov


Blue water navy is crucial for Russia's ascent

The program of development of high-scale naval surface forces, including six aircraft-carrying attack groups, based in the Pacific Ocean and North Sea, was presented in early July by Russian Navy’s Commander-in-Chief Admiral Vladimir Masorin. The ambitious initiative aroused a heated debate between advocates of two basic concepts – both as old as the Russian fleet.

Not for the first time, some experts are trying to convince the audience that Russia, as a continental power, does not need a large-scale Navy, or if it does, it has to be only inshore-based and defensive, and even if not only, it definitely does not require aircraft carriers.

In the following series of articles, we'll try to consequently explain three points: why Russia needs a Navy; why Russia needs a blue-water Navy; why Russia needs an aircraft-carrying Navy.



Following the winged words of poet Alexander Pushkin, the discussion about the Navy is "an old debate of Slavs among themselves". Unlike many other cases, polar views are expressed not by enthusiasts and opponents of Russia's greatness. "Navyphobia" appears to be typical for many sincerely patriotic persons who believe that Navy-building is a false path in the ascent to greatness. These people are somewhat alike Moscow boyars with their mistrust towards Peter the Great.

In their turn, enthusiasts of Navy-building may perceive themselves as heirs of Feofan Prokopovich (1681-1736), Peter's closest ally and author of the Church's reform, who wrote:

"What for has God created such a huge water expanse? For drinking, the man has got enough rivers and springs, not needing in such an abundance of water, encompassing most of the earth. Could God have spilled the water essence among human habitations to help people residing in various ends of the world meet one another? Thus we come to realize the need of having a fleet; we equally realize that one who dislikes the fleet veritably dislikes his own benefit, and is not grateful to God for His dispensation about us. Our fatherland's borders are open to the southern and northern seas. How can such a glorious and strong power as ours do without a fleet, while each village, standing beside a river or a lake, has got boats?"

In some cases, this ancient debate, lasting for more than a century, sometimes reaches the dimension of a religious dispute. Curiously, the advocates of the Navy more frequently become an object of criticism as it was, for instance, in mid-1950s when the naval strategy was banned both as a subject and a definition under pressure from the General Staff headed by Marshal Vasily Sokolovsky. Attempts to upgrade naval education collapsed against demagogical speculations over expediency of a “more integral military science” and a comprehensive military doctrine. By the time of the 1970s, when the concept of the Navy was revived in its original greatness and even with an unprecedented splendor, the country did not have enough time to enjoy the advantages of possessing a blue-water Navy.

In the times of great tempests like the Crimean wars, the Great Reform, the Revolution and the Civil War, and the Time of Troubles of the 1990s, the Navy became their hostage and their first victim. Several times in national history, the Navy potential of Russia was completely destroyed by Russians themselves probably starting from the episode when Stepan Razin's rebels burnt down "The Eagle", the first Russian warship. These facts are raised by opponents of naval development as a mystical argument for the allegation that Russia is unlucky in Navy-building, as God has not blessed it. Even the 2000 wreckage of Kursk submarine is ascribed to this mystical misfortune.

As a matter of fact, this mysticism is just a superstition, which is not quite scrupulous. Maintenance of naval forces corresponding with Russias geopolitical status is definitely a costly mission, requiring permanent concentration and commitment from the state leadership.

The tragic background of Russian Navy is not a specific Russian feature. In case of any disturbances in the state's functioning, the Navy is the first to be affected. Tempests like revolutions and war defeats have caused catastrophes of Navy forces of other countries as well particularly in Germany, France, Italy and Japan. Some of these countries never managed to revive the naval power and to re-establish their status of great powers. On the contrary, Great Britain and the United States, avoiding foreign interventions and large-scale social disturbances (the Civil War in the US took place yet in the pre-Navy period), serve until today as examples of states with a strong Navy tradition and a formidable geopolitical potential.

Undoubtedly, the Navy as any other enterprise could more successfully develop under hothouse conditions. However, such conditions have never existed, and are unlikely to ever be available in Russia.

The whole three-century history of the Russian Navy, one of the most powerful in the world, should be thus viewed as a real deed of valor. Compared with the history of the splendid Navy forces of Germany and Russia, the Russian Navy has been historically much more successful. Todays Russia has got enough political will, commitment, and resources for re-establishing a capable Navy. Therefore, the view that Russia is "unlucky with the Navy" is a self-destructive hallucination. One has to be really blind to be unable to recognize the importance and the Navy in Russian history which could be more troublesome if the state leadership did not turn its back to the sea at certain historical points.



Along with the "black cat" of mysticism, the opponents of the Navy have driven a number of ostensibly rationalistic pleas. Firstly, Russia is a continental power, and therefore, the Navy is excessive luxury which has to be maintained not "organically" but "artificially", thus wasting the nation's potential (call this a geopolitical argument). The second objection implies that Russia's history of the last two centuries proves that the fate of the nation has never been determined on the sea, in naval battles; that Russia was involved in land wars, in which the Navy was of no importance (call this a strategic argument). And, finally, Russia is not rich enough to allow itself an excessive system requiring permanent maintenance and renovation; instead, the budget should be spent for land forces and infrastructure (an economic argument).

The combination of these three assumptions, regularly flavored with anti-naval mysticism, comprises the doctrine of "Navyphobia" which unfortunately gained the upper hand too often in Russia's history. In order to prove the opposite view, we should itemize the logic of this doctrine, largely resting upon false postulates, misjudgment, incoherence, and underestimation.



The geopolitical argument against the Navy is a typical case of "a Russian dream with foreign names", according to the expression of poet Maximilian Voloshin. The contraposition of continental and marine powers was elaborated not in Russia (and not for Russia), but in Great Britain. Moreover, the destination of this doctrine, in the British eyes, was to meet challenges from the land. This continental opponent was personified firstly by Napoleon, later when Lord Halford Mackinder developed his idea of the "geopolitical axis of history" by Russia, which was then supposed to invade in India, and finally by Germany. On the American soil, the same concept was used for the description of confrontation with the USSR. In case Russia was situated on an island, Western geopolitical theorists would have invented other definitions.

Geopolitical counter-arguments to the Anglo-Saxon geopolitical doctrine were raised mostly by German thinkers. In the manner of a counter-challenge, Germany deliberately associated itself with the Land, the Continent, the Behemoth, Sparta though trying to develop a powerful Navy which twice displayed its strength.

Russian geopolitics has been enough independent to avoid declining into a situational geostrategy, determined with "the Big Game" with Britain. It was essentially alien to the contraposition of the Land and the Sea. Prominent geographer Pyotr Semyonov- Tyan-Shansky determined Russia's political situation as "transcontinental" while the alternative design was seen in a "circular" form, concentrated around a certain "mediterranean" sea like the Roman Empire, or flocculiform like the Spanish and British empires of the New Times.

Definitely, both the system concentrating around an internal sea and the system composed of many separate pieces across the globe require an early development, or even hyperdevelopment of the naval potential, and its expansion typical for the United Kingdom, as well as for the model which Germany tried to develop in the early XX century, with fatal consequences. Meanwhile, a transcontinental system primarily focuses of its internal communications, practically intangible for the outside enemy.

The geopolitics of a transcontinental power is concentrated not on the effort of connecting scattered elements into a single entity but with the objective of facilitating communication across the expanse with an uneven distribution of human resources and capitals. In the XIX and XX centuries, this objective was vital for two great transcontinental powers Russia and the United States. A warmer climate and relatively smaller distances enabled the United States to establish a "polycentric" system in which both Eastern and Western coastlines are today almost equally developed. One more advantage was the narrow isthmus, very convenient for building the Panama Canal.

A similarly transcontinental Russia did not possess such advantages. The Russian climate is cold; most of the Siberia is encompassed with the zone of permafrost, equally unfavorable for building railroads as cities. Instead of the Panama Canal, the Russians have to use the lengthy and predominantly freezing North Sea Route. Therefore, Russia faced great difficulties in implementation of its geopolitical advantages, as well as in development of its natural resources. Thus, the Russian power has never been an "accelerate", its path to greatness being complicated and periodically reverse. Still, Russia did not lag behind the United States during the XX century, and managed to recover rather rapidly after the terrible blow of 1991. That means that in a long run, drawbacks like an extended territory or difficulties in extraction of minerals eventually turn an advantage particularly obvious from availability of those resources which the opponent has rapidly exhausted.

Thus, in its authentic logic of geopolitics Russia's own, not borrowed from the British Russia and the United States are not different but similar kinds of powers, possessing comparable preconditions and comparable geopolitical potential but realizing them unequally in various periods of time. In today's world, the transcontinental design of a great power proved to be the most viable. Seeking access to the Indian Ocean, China is trying to acquire similar advantages.

The "flocculiform" power of the United Kingdom has actually abandoned the competition. Meanwhile, the logic of a transcontinental power requires ordering and integration of the internal space (in this regard, a popular modern song "From the Volga to the Yenisei" is consonant with Semyonov-Tyan-Shansky's geopolitical insights on necessity of building up "Russian Eurasia" precisely in this area), and eventual "increase of tension" in the coastline periphery, which should be preferably even, without significant advantage for the original "colonization nucleus". For the latter purpose, Russia as well as the United States needs a capable Navy.

Why does the power, resting upon the potential of the continent and organizing its space along the internal land communications, need to have a Navy? It is essential primarily for conservation and consolidation of its transcontinental status. Semyonov-Tyan-Shansky writes: "In case of collision with neighbors, a transcontinental state is most easily besieged from the adjacent seas and at least temporary overtake of coastlines; the latter challenge annihilates the very essence of the "from a sea to a sea" system, and undermines the country".

Another reason, forcing a transcontinental power to develop a powerful naval force, lies in the fact that the energy of geopolitical motion, which creates this power, starts from the land and eventually reaches the sea, continuing its movement across the waters and transforming into a naval power. This expansion, however, is not irregular and randomized, as in the "flocculiform" empires, and steadily proceeds towards sea objectives to be systematically harnessed and integrated. Thus, a transcontinental power develops not only its land but also its sea inevitably requiring a naval force.

However, the geographic and geopolitical situation of Russia has largely predetermined its lagging behind the United States. In the XVIII century, Russian expansion reached the American continent, but in a hundred years, Russia, weakened with European wars, had to retreat, being later restricted also from southern expansion by the rising Japan. Thus, the great heritage of the Russian-American Company was almost embezzled, and only the resolute policy of 1945, which allowed Russia to win back the Sakhalin and Kuril Isles, prevented its complete squander.

Meanwhile, the United States swiftly expanded to Cuba, the Caribbean Isles, the Hawaii and other Pacific islands, establishing a system of "seas of its own". Japan's attempt to abandon its geopolitical role of a "lock" on the Russian doorway to the ocean turned a disaster for Japan itself. However, the existing situation may change. Russia may either bulwark the system of its own seas, or lose its strategic territories, first of all in the Far East and Eastern Siberia, with an inevitable decline of its geopolitical status. To avert the latter challenge, Russia requires a powerful Navy: its possession opens the doorway to greatness, while its absence predetermines disaster.

In the XXI century, Russia has to endeavor the same voyage which the United States successfully undertook in the second half of the XIX century and in the first half of the XX century. Quite probably, this journey also involves a Civil War in our case, with the internationally recognized secessionist "Confederation" of Ukraine (hopefully with economic and diplomatic means, without shedding fraternal blood). By the second half of the XXI century, Russia has to elevate to the same level which America reached in the mid-XX century. In case this process is not interrupted by some cataclysms (which are hard to avoid in Russia), this noonday is going to be far more lustrous than that of America in the XX century.

(To be continued. The Land of Seas)

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